Sunday, February 28, 2010

the languages and dialects of Estonia

Language variation and change have always interested me. Even before I started studying linguistics I was interested in the topic, and now it fascinates me even more. The Estonian Institute has a great publication on the Estonian language and is a very good introduction to the history and the structure of the language. If you haven't already read it, you should certainly check it out here. Below is how to say: Our nightingale has gone elsewhere this year in all the languages and dialects that are native to Estonia. In the standard (state) language you say the sentence as such: Meie ööbik on tänavu mujale läinud (Our nightengale is this.year to.elsewhere gone). But in other languages and dialects?

Hiiumaa: Meide ööbik aa seaesta maeale läin
Saaremaa: Meite ööbik oo siasta mäale läind
Muhumaa: Meite üöbik uo sieoasta mõjale läin
Läänemaa: Meite ärjälend oo tänäkond maale läin
Vigala: Mede künnilind uu tänabö maeale läind
Kihnu: Mede künniljõnd ond tänävasta maalõ läin
Harju-Risti: Mete üöbik oo tänabu maeal läin
Kuusalu: Meie üöbik on tänävu muuale mend
Järvamaa: Me õitselind on tänavu maale läind
Põhja-Virumaa: Meie kirikiut one tänävu mojale lähänd
Vaivara: Mei sisokaine ono (olo) tänä vuo mojale mennö
Kodavere: Meie sisask one tänävuade mõjale lähnud
Karksi: Mee kiriküüt' om täo muial lännü
Southern-Tartumaa: Meie tsisask om tinavu muiale lännu
Võrumaa: Mii sisask um timahavva muialõ lännüq
Setomaa: Mii sisas'k om timahavva muialõ l'änüq

List thanks to the Estonian Institute and Urmas Sutrop

Saturday, February 27, 2010

to be, to have, nouns and adjectives

In this post I will run though how to construct basic sentences in Estonian, showing you how to say 'I am x' and 'I have y'. You will also find what some basic forms of the Estonian pronouns are and how to ask 'yes/ no question'. So, without further a-do, let's start!


There are two nominative forms of the Estonian pronouns, the short forms and the long forms. The long forms are emphatic and are used when one wants to emphasise the pronoun. In English one stresses the pronoun, as in you in the following example: I play the guitar. What instrument do you play?

ma --- mina --- 'I'
sa --- sina --- 'you' (singular)
ta --- tema --- 'he / she'

me --- meie --- 'we'
te --- teie --- 'you' (plural)
nad --- nemad --- 'they'

You will notice that Estonian does not make a gender distinction in the third person singual pronoun - ta means both 'he' and 'she'.

Olema - The verb 'to be'

Here follows the present conjugation of olema. Notice the singular endings 'n' and 'd' and the plural endings 'me' and 'te'. These are important to learn by heart as they are used in the conjugation of all Estonian verbs in the present tense. All verbs that is except olema. The endings for the third person for all other verbs are 'b' and 'vad' but don't concern yourself with these now. Notice also that the third person form of olema is on regardless of number. The present tense of olema is formed by removing the infinitive ending -ma (giving you ole) and replacing it by the personal endings.

ma/ mina olen
sa/ sina oled
ta/ tema on

me/ meie oleme
te/ teie olete
nad/ nemad on

Note: In Estonian we sometimes do not even have to mention the pronoun as the ending on the verb tells us what person and number is being talked about. This is similar to in Spanish how soy means 'I am' so you don't even have to mention the pronoun yo 'I'.

I am can be translated into Estonian, depending on the context, by: ma olen, olen, and mina olen.

How to say 'I have...'

In Estonian, like in Finnish, Latvian and Irish, but unlike French, German and English, there is no verb to have. This is a common occurance cross-linguistically and many languages' verb to have dervives from verbs used to express grasping (as in Proto-Germanic), carrying and holding. In Estonian like in Finnish, Latvian and Irish one employs the verb to be plus a case ending or a preposition to indicate location. The subject of the sentence is the item that is possessed. The four examples all mean: I have a car.

Irish: Tá carr agam (Is car at-I).
Latvian: Man ir auto (I-to is car).

Finnish: Minulla on auto (I-at is car).
Estonian: Mul on auto (I-at is car).

But enough about other languages. Let's have a look at how to express this in Estonian for all the pronouns. The structure in Estonian is: pronoun-ADE on object where pronoun refers to the possesser, ADE is the case ending, on is the third person form of the verb olema 'to be' and object refers to the item that is possessed. Notice that the singular pronouns and the third person plural all have a longer (emphatic) form, while there is only one possible form for the first and second person plural pronouns.

mul on... --- sul on... --- tal on...
minul on... --- sinul on... ---- temal on...

meil on... --- teil on... --- neil on...

------------------------- nendel on...

This form uses the adessive case (shortened to ADE) and is one of the locative cases. Its name in Estonian is alalütlev kääne 'on-saying case'. Its basic meaning is translated as 'on' as in 'on the table', laual in Estonian (laud = table). Its characteristic ending is -l. Don't worry about this linguistic terminology. The most important thing is being able to use the structure.

Some Nouns

We already came across the noun auto which means 'car'. Here are some other nouns that are less internationally recognised. Note: all nouns listed are in the singular nominative case which is the base and 'dictonary' form of the noun. In this post we will not deal with plural nouns or nouns in cases other than the nominative.

õpetaja 'teacher'
õpilane 'school'
koer 'dog'
kass 'cat'
maja 'house'
raamat 'book'
pliiats 'pencil'
poiss 'boy'
tüdruk 'girl'
mees 'man', 'husband'
naine 'woman', 'wife'

Now we can start to form some simple sentences. The basic sentence structure is SUBject VERb OBJect (or in the case of I have... sentences, PROnoun-ADE on object. See the examples below:

Ta on õpetaja. 'S/he is a teacher.'
Ma olen õpilane ja mul on pliiats. 'I am a student and I have a pencil.'
Meil on auto ja teil on maja. 'We have a car and you (pl.) have a house.'
Ma olen naine. Sa oled mees. Ta on poiss ja ta on tüdruk. 'I am a woman. You are a man. He is a boy and she is a girl.'

You will notice that Estonian does not have a direct translation of a. Neither does it have a direct translation of the. (Estonian has other words that function similar to English a and the, but we'll leave those for a later lesson). The Estonian word for and is ja. (This is not to be confused with the word for yes which is jah or jaa).

Now try making your own basic sentences! Translate the following into Estonian (answers are at the end of the post):

1. I have a dog and you have a cat.
2. He is a teacher and he has a book and a pencil.
3. The student is a boy.
4. They have a house.

Some Adjectives

Here are some adjectives to help us make our sentences a little more interesting. Note: all adjectives listed are in the singular nominative case which is the base and 'dictonary' form of the adjective. In this post we will not deal with plural adjectives or adjectives in cases other than the nominative.

hea 'good'
halb 'bad'
rõõmus 'happy'
kurb 'sad'
huvitav 'interesting'
igav 'boring'
sinine 'blue'
must 'black', 'dirty'
valge 'white'
kollane 'yellow'
uus 'new'
ilus 'beautiful'
noor 'young'
vana 'old'
suur 'big'
väike 'little'

In terms of word order, adjectives in Estonian work as in English.

The man is sad. The sad man. The pencil is blue. A blue pencil.
Mees on kurb. Kurb mees. Pliiats on sinine. Sinine pliiats.

Some examples:

Meil on uus õpetaja. Ta on noor naine. Ta on ilus ja rõõmus.
We have a new teacher. She is a young woman. She is beautiful and happy.
Neil on vana ja must maja. 'They have an old and black/ dirty house'.
Ta on hea õpilane. 'S/he is a good student'.

See if you can translate the following sentences (again answers are below):

5. I have a black pencil. You have a yellow pencil. He has a blue pencil.
6. The book is interesting.
7. We have an old book. The book is boring.

Asking a 'yes/ no question'.

Asking a question that demand either a 'yes' or a 'no' in Estonian is very easy. You simply put the question word kas before the subject and you leave everything else the same. Example:

Kas sa oled õpilane? 'Are you a teacher?'
Kas ta on noor poiss? 'Is he a young boy?'
Kas neil on huvitav raamat? 'Do they have an interesting book?'

Negative of olema.

Of course, it's useless to be able to ask a question without being able to understand the answer, or understand a question without being able to answer.

Making a verb negative in Estonian is also easy. (And you thought this was a hard language?! ) You make the present tense form of the verb negative by adding ei 'no' before the verb and leaving the verb in its present stem devoid of personal endings. For example. In the sentences below we see an example of a question, a positive declaration and a negative declaration. We drop the -n ending from olen 'I am' so it becomes ole. Thus, (ma) olen becomes (ma) ei ole. This is the same for all persons and numbers, even the third person.

Kas ma olen noor? Jah, ma olen noor. Ei, ma ei ole noor.
Am I young? Yes, I am young. No, I am not young.

M(in)a ei ole õpilane. 'I am not a student'.
S(in)a ei ole õmus. 'You (sg.) are not happy'.
T(em)a ei ole hea õpetaja. 'S/he is not a good teacher'.
Me(ie) ei ole. 'We are not.'
Te(ie) ei ole. 'You (pl.) are not.'
N(em)ad ei ole. 'They are not.'

M(in)ul ei ole... 'I do not have...'
S(in)ul ei ole... 'You (sg.) do not have...'
T(em)al ei ole... 'S/h does not have...'
Meil ei ole... 'We do not have...'
Teil ei ole... 'You (pl.) do not have...'
Neil/ Nendel ei ole... 'They do not have...'

[As Tatsutahime points out, sentences in the form I do not have a... require the object not possessed to be in the partitive case. e.g. Mul on koer 'I have a dog', Mul ei ole koera 'I do not have a dog'. We will discuss this is a later post].

See if you can translate the following sentences:

8. I have a little beautiful cat. The cat is black and white.
9. Do you have a dog?
10. The man is not happy. He is sad.
11. The car is blue and new.
12. Is the blue car new? No, the blue car is old. The yellow car is new.
13. Is the book interesting? The book is not interesting. The book is boring.


1. Mul/Minul on koer ja sul/ sinul on kass.
2. Ta/ Tema on õpetaja ja tal/ temal on raamat ja pliiats.
3. Õpilane on poiss.
4. Neil/ Nendel on maja.
5. Mul/ Minul on must pliiats. Sul/ Sinul on kollane pliiats. Tal/ Temal on sinine pliiats.
6. Raamat on huvitav.
7. Meil on vana raamat. Raamat on igav.
8. Mul/ Minul on väike ja ilus kass. Kass on must ja valge.
9. Kas sul/ sinul on koer?
10. Mees ei ole rõõmus. Mees on kurb.
11. Auto on sinine ja uus.
12. Kas sinine auto on uus?  Ei, sinine auto on vana. Kollane auto on uus.
13. Kas raamat on huvitav? Raamat ei ole huvitav. Raamat on igav.

[Some of these sentences are a little stilted. This is because I tried to keep the lesson as short and as simple as possible. In later lessons I will discuss on the use of the possessive adjectives and how to say this and that, these and those].

Friday, February 26, 2010

gerund (-des Form)

Estonian has two infinitives, the so called -da infinitive (endings in -a, -ta, -da) and the -ma infinitive. Apart from having to know when to use the two infintive forms (on which I will post in the future) one needs to learn the form of the stem as this can be different between the two infinitives. In this post I want to discuss forming the Estonian gerund. The Estonian gerund is formed from the stem of the -da infinitive. It has three endings: -des, -tes, and -es.

-da ---- -des

laul/da 'to sing'  ---- laul/des 'singing'
tööta/da 'to work' ---- tööta/des 'working'

-ta ---- -tes

joos/ta 'to run'  ---- joos/tes 'running'
ooda/ta 'to wait' ---- ooda/tes 'waiting'

-a  ---- -es

tull/a 'to come'  ---- tull/es 'coming'
minn/a 'to go' ---- minn/es 'going'

Now let's look at some examples of how to gerund is used. The gerund in Estonian is used differently from how it operates in English. In English the gerund can be thought of as a verb used as a noun, e.g. speaking in: I like speaking Estonian. In Estonian the gerund is used to indicate some action that takes place at the same time as another. This is better understood by seeing the Estonian gerund in action. The gerund  is marked in bold in the Estonian examples.

Me istume vaikides. 'We sit (while) being quiet'.
Süües tõuseb/ kasvab isu. 'While eating, the appetite increases'.
Õnnetus ei hüüa tulles. 'An accident does yell (to signal) that it comes'.
Laps tuleb joostes koju. 'The child comes running home'.
Lauldes ja mängides läheb aeg kiiresti. 'While singing and playing time passes quickly'.
Aeg läheb lennates. 'Time goes flying [Time flies]'.

Mida tühjem tünn, seda suurem on mürin sõites.
'The emptier the barrel, the bigger the rumble while travelling'.

Kord tänaval jalutades kuulen korraga, et keegi läheneb mulle selja tagant kiiresti joostes.
'Once on the street I suddendly hear while walking, that someone approaches from behind my back quickly running'.

For those interested in Estonian morphology from a diachronic perspective, the gerund originated from the inessive case (ending in -s) of the -da infinitive. This form was used to answer the questions kus? 'where' and milles? 'in/ at what?' No other case forms of the -da infinitive survive in the modern language.

Source: Estonian Textbook by Juhan Tuldava, 1994, pg. 137-138

Thursday, February 25, 2010

basic phrases with the BBC

The BBC Quick Fix website has 12 phrases to allow tourists to Estonia learn and use some basic phrases on their visit. You can access the phrases and listen or download the audio by this link.

These phrases are:

Jah yes
Ei no
Tere tulemast! Welcome!
Meeldiv teid kohata. Pleased to meet you.
Tere! Hello!
Head aega! Goodbye!
Tänan teid. Thank you!
Minu nimi on... My name is...
Kas te räägite inglise keelt? Do you speak English?
Vabandage, ma ei räägi eesti keelt. I'm sorry, I don't speak Estonian.
Palun aidake. Please help.
Vabandage, kus asub tualettruum? Excuse me, where is the toilet?

locative cases and postpositions

When you wish to emphasis or clarify the location of an object you can make use of postpositions instead of case endings. To do this, one removed the locative case ending from the noun and replace it with the proper postposition, leaving a space between the noun (now in the genitive case) and the postposition. The following examples use the Estonian nouns kapp 'cabinet' and laud 'table'.

kapisse (kappi) = kapi sisse 'into the cabinet'
kapis = kapi sees 'in the cabinet'
kapist = kapi seest 'out of the cabinet'

lauale = laua peale 'onto the table'
laual = laua peal 'onto the table'
laualt = laua pealt 'onto the table'

A native speaker, Myst, points out that the 'long illative' kapisse has fallen out of use in the modern spoken language, in favour of the 'short illative' kappi. That gives me another idea for a future post when I look at cases, the 'short' v. the 'long' illative. Thanks Myst!

Note: The observent student will notice that the case endings -sse, -s, -st, -le, -l, -lt have jumped from the noun to the postposition. For example, peale, peal, and pealt simply mean 'onto the head', 'on the head', and 'off the head' respectively. The Estonian word for head is pea. It is related to the Finnish and Võro words for head pää as in the Southern Estonian town of Otepää (Otõmpää in Võro) which means 'Head of the Bear'.

A native speaker, Kata, adds the following: 'There certainly is a historic connection with the noun 'pea' and the postpositions you named. Today the postposition have only one meaning. For example 'onto the head' would be 'pea peale': Ta elu pöörati pea peale. [Her/His life turned onto the head (lit. Her/His life turned upside-down.]

And one more historical note. I am currently reading a Estonian translation of a novel, published in 1937. "Ta vaatas tema peale" [S/he looked him in the face (lit. onto the head)] is a common way of expression. The case has shifted within the 70 years and now contemporary Estonians would say: "Ta vaatas teda." [S/he looked at her/him]' Thanks for the input Kata!

Here are some examples of the Estonian locative cases and postpositions in action:

Karu tuleb koopa seest [= koopast] välja 'The bear comes out of the cave'.
Ma mõtlen sõbra peale [= sõbrale] 'I am thinking of my friend'.
Räägi kõik südame pealt  [= südamelt] ära! 'Tell everything that is on your heart [Get everything off your chest!]'.
Vean kihla kümne dollari peale [= kümnele dollarile] 'I will bet you ten dollars'.
Must valge peal [= valgel] 'Black on white'.

All note the use of käsi 'hand' as a postposition:

Kelle käes [= Kellel] on minu ajaleht? 'Who has my newspaper? [In whose hand is my newspaper?]'
Ma küsin venna käest [= vennalt] 'I will ask (of) my brother'.

Source: Estonian Textbook by Juhan Tuldava, 1994, pg. 100.